Hockey Great Darren McCarty: Pot Advocate on Ice

Darren McCarty speaks to the crowd at the 2016 Ann Arbor Hash Bash.

When it comes to physical punishment and player injuries, the big, bad NFL gets all the press. But Darren McCarty, the former Detroit Red Wings star, is here to tell you that professional hockey is just as rough, if not more so.

In retirement, McCarty has become an outspoken advocate for cannabis, pointing to his own rehabilitation from alcohol and pill addiction by relying on cannabis. That’s how Darren McCarty views his current role. Former players making the  transition to retirement often look to each other for support. Many seek relief for their own substance abuse. McCarty wants to be there for them.

Why are speaking out for cannabis?
I just speak from my experience, how it saved my life from prescription drugs and alcoholism. People need to know the truth, need to know the answers.

Tell us about your journey to this point. How did you become an advocate?
I never smoked growing up be cause I was always afraid. I never smoked weed until I was like 27. It was after my dad died, around 1999. They had me on all these pills that I got sort of hooked on. But I didn’t like them. I’m an insomniac and the only thing that would work for me was either alcohol or pills. The funny thing is that I use medical marijuana today and I’m 100 percent more sober than I was back then. I finally came to the realization that I’m an alcoholic. But, absolutely, God’s greatest gift is this plant. It’s helped me mentally.

But I’ll fast forward. It was an ongoing battle. I’d been to four rehabs by 2006. I had some times of sobriety, but nothing really ever worked. I’d made my comeback when we won the Stanley Cup up in 2008, had another injury in 2009 and I retired. My body was done. I’d made a comeback, we’d won the Cup and I’d fulfilled everything. I was happy to walk away from the game.

I didn’t miss playing, but you miss sort of everything else around it. I was on alcohol, drugs – you name it – for two years. During this time, I always smoked. I’d smoke in the morning. I always knew that I needed a smoke in the morning because it would get me right.

I started getting off the alcohol and drugs and met my wife, who’s also a nurse. She’s my biggest supporter. I moved to Florida to write my book, My Last Fight: The True Story of a Hockey Rock Star, where I pretty much tell my entire truth. I’d been through so much shit – bankruptcy, divorce, gambling, alcohol, drugs. I’ve been through it all. I’ve always been sort of a fan’s choice as an athlete, because I’m just like everybody else.

Anyway, I moved back to Michigan a year ago in February and one of the reasons was I’d been dying to quit drinking. I didn’t get sick when I drank; I got sick when I didn’t drink. That’s how bad it was. So, when I came back to Michigan, I started looking deeper into cannabis and the movement. I wanted to get educated.

The cover story of our current issue (November 2016) is Pot & the NFL. Everybody knows how rough the NFL is. How does hockey compare?
We used to joke about football players – the linebackers and the lineman. We’d say, “Thank god they can’t skate!” But guys got bigger and stronger in the last ten years. There are monsters out there now. You got guys going 35, 45 miles an hour in full-on collisions. I had 129 regular season fights, let alone the exhibitions. I think I had over 500 fights in my life. It’s not only my body; it’s my hands. I mean my arthritis is ridiculous. So I got the cannabis lotions and the oils. I rub that on in the morning and I’m ready to go, dude. My golf swing’s never been better. My golf game’s never been better because I’m dialed in. And I know exactly what I need to smoke.

How prevalent is use of pharmaceuticals in the NHL?
In the past like three or four years, we’ve lost three or four of our hockey brethren because of alcohol or self-medication with pills and suicide – stuff like that. If you get hurt, it’s more regulated nowadays. But 20 years ago, when I first started, you could get whatever you needed for whatever you wanted.

Guys use Percocet or the Vicodin because they have surgery, or injuries or surgeries. But pills not only kill your body from the inside, they kill your mind. There are so many other ways, and that’s what I preach today. I’m in a different position now because I’m retired and I’ve moved on in my life to my next chapter. So this has nothing to do with guys who are playing. This is more to do with guys who are finishing playing or guys who have the issues that I do. There are options. Get educated. Cannabis might work for you and it might not. Everybody’s programmed differently.

Lifting the Stanley Cup in 2002
Lifting the Stanley Cup in 2002

Is there much pot use in the NHL?
If there is, it’s still in the closet. I’m sure there are a few guys on each team that do, more recreationally, but alcohol’s the big thing in hockey. Since I was a kid, you know? I’ve been drinking beer since I was like 13-, 14-years-old.

Does the NHL care about the players after they’ve retired?
They give you one year of insurance and then say, “Hey, thanks a lot. See ya.” It’s great insurance when you got it, but aftercare is not what it should be.

I run into former players and we join together as a community and lean on each other. There are organizations that help guys after their careers are done, help get their insurance stuff together – all the little things that they really didn’t have to worry about while they played.

Do you ever regret your time in the NHL, now that you’re saddled with your injuries?
Absolutely not! I knew what I was getting into; I knew what I signed up for. I don’t hold nothing against it. I’d do the same. I’d change some of the ways I did things off the ice, but nothing on the ice.

Do you talk about cannabis with former players?
Oh yeah. Because it’s life, and there’s nothing to hide especially. It’s just sort of like: “This is working for me; it might work for you.” I’m an advocate because I see how it’s helped me and helped my life. It’s helped me be a better person, a better father, a better husband, a better golfer – just the person that I wanna be. We gotta get rid of this reefer madness shit and get educated.

McCarty and John Sinclair
McCarty with cannabis activist legend John Sinclair at the 2016 Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, MI

Do you think the current players would benefit from having the freedom to use cannabis?
That’s a question I often get. I’m not getting into the politics of it, but I think regulated CBD and Simpson oils could have a place.

They’d certainly be a lot more beneficial than drinking. But alcohol is the preferred drug.
Are you kidding me? Absolutely! You gotta understand when it comes to hockey, it’s an old boy network. So change is a really, really slow thing. I hope everybody could change their mind in some way, because I think it would make the world a much happier place. My greatest analogy about weed is the day after St. Patty’s Day, half the people say they’re quitting. But the day after 420, nobody quits. That’s gotta tell you something!


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